Julia Maciel rode the pneumatic tube long enough for the novelty to wear off. How long had it been? A minute? Two?
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? Julia recalled just those words of Lewis Carroll’s. This had better not end with a cake saying “Eat me.”
She hoped Kenyatta had jumped in after her. The tube was made of clear plastic alloy. All around her she saw sheet rock. If this tube broke down anywhere, she could be trapped under Olympus Mons for the rest of a very shortened life.
Then sudden daylight; the tube ended, and Julia fell hard into a trampoline, which bounced her at an angle into some netting. The net closed around her and dragged her off to one side, which was good, because otherwise Kenyatta would have hit her a moment later. The same bounce-seize thing happened to him. A robot crane placed their netted bodies on a large gymnast’s mat, where the nets opened. What an operation, Julia thought. But it worked – they landed without a scratch. If you didn’t count the ones from the bear.
Julia and Kenyatta rose above the nets and mat to stand next to Isabel, who was nearby, holding her bleeding stomach, and looking around. And what a sight: they were in a snow globe! Had they traveled back in time? It was certainly a lovely domed city, a sort of fantasy of green life that was like a plush, over-grown version of a Dr. Seuss phantasmagoria. Beyond the bubble of the dome they saw daylight reflecting on brown stone walls that were as high as the eye could see. My God! Julia thought. Aquinas built all this underground? How? In only 17 years it would be impossible…wouldn’t it?
Julia watched as half their section of pneumatic tube retracted into the stone wall outside the dome, the other half into the dome itself. The tube had “anchored” the dome to the wall, but now that the halves were separated, the dome was no longer attached to the wall. Julia’s feet remained planted, but the stone wall outside began to…float? Unless they were experiencing a massive earthquake, a kilometer-size stone wall can’t vibrate like that.
No: the snow globe must have been floating, Julia reasoned. Like they do in space. But that’s impossible unless…how far underground had they gone? To Mars’ core?
“Welcome, weary travelers,” said a voice. “Welcome to New Dagreb. And welcome to the heart of Olympus Mons!”
Julia almost hadn’t noticed that a crowd of about 50 people had gathered around them. Everyone was dressed in a sort of rainforest caveman look, as though they’d designed and sewn their own clothes for the fairy portion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Julia realized that she and Kenyatta and Isabel had landed in the snow globe’s central plaza. One man, addressing them, stood on a meter-high stage and wore a laurel-leaf crown. Julia asked herself: who does he think he is, Caesar?
“I’m sure you have many questions,” Caesar-man said confidently. He was young, not more than 25; perhaps 170cm, of skinny stature and rat-like facial features. “I promise you they’ll all be answered in due course. First, are you injured?”
Isabel called out, “I am.”
An older man emerged from the crowd: bald, white-templed, with a sort of crumpled manner. “I’m Doctor Ramsey,” he said to Isabel as he looked over her wounds. “Can you sit down for a second?” She did. He kneeled over her and bandaged her bear marks.
“Where are my manners?” said the man wearing the laurel leaf. “My name is Godfrey. Can I get you anything?”
Kenyatta was admiring all the artfully arranged vines and trestles.
“Just information, for now,” said Julia. “Where exactly are we?”
“You’re exactly in New Dagreb, formerly the snow globe known as Darwin,” Godfrey said, smiling.
“But how did you get the snow globe…from space to underground?” asked Julia. “Without anyone knowing?”
“We didn’t,” laughed Godfrey. “We’re not underground. We’re in the volcano.” “But that’s…that’s impossible,” said Julia.
“Impossible for anyone else! Other than my father.”
At that, trumpet music began to play from somewhere far off. Julia only then noticed that one back path to that meter-high stage was somewhat obscured by ivy-covered curtains. Out of that path and onto the stage stepped Mars’ most famous rebel scientist, the one and only Dr. Petraeus Aquinas, looking…pretty much like all the holos she’d seen of him. Not bad for a septugenarian.
The people of New Dagreb stopped staring at the new visitors, and got down on one knee.
Julia thought she saw Doctor Ramsey roll his eyes – but then, he was already on a knee, tending to Isabel. Isabel saw Aquinas and gasped as though she was watching a moon crash into a planet. She quickly re-arranged herself and got down on a knee. Kenyatta did much the same thing.
Julia and Godfrey shared a certain brow-furrowed eye contact. Godfrey did not go down on a knee, but his expression suggested that Julia had better do so.
What the wángbā was this? Julia could hardly believe this was the leader of the great peace cult. Who apparently needed his guests to swear fealty to him like medieval peasants.
Then she thought: What will happen to me if I don’t?
Julia bent down on one knee. She felt a feeling she had not expected, a very strange admixture of fear and curiosity, as though she were four years old again.
Dr. Aquinas maintained a detached gaze as he finally, slowly spoke, as though each word weighed a kilogram. “Welcome, pilgrims, to New Dagreb. We are absolutely thrilled to see you here. Welcome to a world without war, a world of peace and happiness and fulfillment for all people who choose to join us. Welcome, pilgrims, to the rest of your lives.” The rest of…what?
Julia’s eyes widened with an outrage that she instinctively knew to repress.